Development of a versatile enrichment analysis tool reveals associations between the maternal brain and mental health disorders, including autism

BMC Neurosci. 2013 Nov 19:14:147. doi: 10.1186/1471-2202-14-147.


Background: A recent study of lateral septum (LS) suggested a large number of autism-related genes with altered expression in the postpartum state. However, formally testing the findings for enrichment of autism-associated genes proved to be problematic with existing software. Many gene-disease association databases have been curated which are not currently incorporated in popular, full-featured enrichment tools, and the use of custom gene lists in these programs can be difficult to perform and interpret. As a simple alternative, we have developed the Modular Single-set Enrichment Test (MSET), a minimal tool that enables one to easily evaluate expression data for enrichment of any conceivable gene list of interest.

Results: The MSET approach was validated by testing several publicly available expression data sets for expected enrichment in areas of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and arthritis. Using nine independent, unique autism gene lists extracted from association databases and two recent publications, a striking consensus of enrichment was detected within gene expression changes in LS of postpartum mice. A network of 160 autism-related genes was identified, representing developmental processes such as synaptic plasticity, neuronal morphogenesis, and differentiation. Additionally, maternal LS displayed enrichment for genes associated with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression.

Conclusions: The transition to motherhood includes the most fundamental social bonding event in mammals and features naturally occurring changes in sociability. Some individuals with autism, schizophrenia, or other mental health disorders exhibit impaired social traits. Genes involved in these deficits may also contribute to elevated sociability in the maternal brain. To date, this is the first study to show a significant, quantitative link between the maternal brain and mental health disorders using large scale gene expression data. Thus, the postpartum brain may provide a novel and promising platform for understanding the complex genetics of improved sociability that may have direct relevance for multiple psychiatric illnesses. This study also provides an important new tool that fills a critical analysis gap and makes evaluation of enrichment using any database of interest possible with an emphasis on ease of use and methodological transparency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / genetics*
  • Brain*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / genetics*
  • Mothers*
  • Software*